ATLAS F1   Volume 7, Issue 11

  Rear View Mirror

Backward glances at racing history

Three of Three: A Tale of the Life andTimes of the Grand Prix World, 1966 to 1968
by Don Capps, U.S.A.

Part 4: Indy, Ford, and Shelby American


A visitor to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in scenic downtown Speedway, Indiana, in the Spring of 1962 would have noticed something odd right away: no bricks. Well, a strip of bricks marked the start/ finish line, but that was it. In a process that started in 1958, the Speedway was now completely paved. The Brickyard was now a thing of the past. The conditions were now ripe for a revolution. As is the case in most revolutions, few realized that they were in one until it was on top of them.

The demise of the bricks, only the front straight was left to be paved in the Summer of 1961, was the item that provided the tinder for the spark of revolution to catch and begin to smolder. While most point the finger at Jack Brabham, John Cooper, and Jim Kimberley as the mischief-makers who sat Indianapolis on its ear, they are only partially correct. The elimination of the bricks would have led to some form of change at the Speedway even if Brabham had not run in the 1961 edition of the 500.

Lest those arched eyebrows become so from laughter rather than puzzlement, keep in mind that the cars that ran at the Brickyard ran the race on a track surface composed of - TADA! - bricks. Bricks that were relatively smooth at normal highway speeds, but took their toll on the machinery at racing speeds. The Indy Roadster as built by master craftsmen such as Frank Kurtis, A.J. Watson, Quinn Epperley, and Ed Kuzma was a racing machine adapted to the unique challenges of the Brickyard. They were built literally to aircraft standards, not only because many of the men who made them were from Southern California and experienced with aircraft construction, but to survive the battering of 500 miles - 800 kilometers - on the bricks.

If 1961 was the start of a revolution, someone forgot to tell the men who entered their cars at Indy in 1962. There were exactly as many 'rear-engined' (actually 'mid-engined') cars in 1962 as in 1961: one. Dan Gurney ended up in the only Mickey Thompson entry to make the race, the No. 34 Thompson Enterprises Special, a Thompson chassis with a highly modified Buick V-8 for power. Gurney put the Thompson - Buick into the eighth starting position and ran well until the rear end gears failed and he parked it. The other Thompson entries fared less well, No. 33 Porky Rachwitz and No. 35 Chuck Daigh failing to qualify. Gurney was originally signed to drive another rear-engined car, a John Zink entered device powered by a gas turbine engine. That is a topic best left for another day.

Ford and Total Performance...

In the ecology of major corporations, there is an ebb and a flow. In the late 1950s, the major corporations involved in motor racing in the United States, General Motors and the Ford Motor Company, were up to their elbows in backing teams on the NASCAR Grand National circuit. The Ford effort was headed by Peter DePaolo, the Mercury team by Bill Stroppe, the Pontiac team by Ray Nichels, Chevrolet had teams run by Smokey Yunick and Hugh Babb, and Petty Enterprises ran the Oldsmobile team. Needless to say, it was a no-hold barred contest. The cars sported fuel injection and even superchargers since these items were listed in the factory parts catalogue. In addition to Grand National racing, Chevrolet was developing the Corvette and an out-and-out racing variant, the SS, to pick up from where the Cunningham team had left off to win the major endurance events of the day, Sebring and Le Mans in particular. Ford was toying with a similar plan for the Thunderbird at one point.

The idea of "Win on Sunday, Sale on Monday," was an idea that seemed to working. The Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) seemed to have other thoughts about such activities however. The AMA was not an organization with much flair and racing did not set well with those at the helm. Besides, the memories of Watkins Glen in 1952, Indianapolis and Le Mans in 1955, and many other racing related fatalities did not make the AMA fond of the sport. Although it put some pressure on GM and Ford in late 1956, both continued to support racing and advertise their successes in the media. Even NASCAR took the AMA hint and placed restrictions on the use of race wins in advertising, violations of which could - and did - result in the loss of Manufacturers Championship points. On 19 May 1957, the AMA got the opportunity it was looking for. At Martinsville, during the "Virginia 500," on lap 441 of a scheduled 500 laps, the Bill Stroppe Mercury of Billy Myers crashed. The Mercury was thrown over the retaining wall and into the crowd, injuring several spectators, among them an eight-year old named Alvin Helsabeck. The race was halted and not restarted. Within hours the news of the incident was headline news in the media. It was carried by the Associated Press and the United Press International as the lead item for the day. The AMA were not amused.

On 6 June 1957, the AMA summoned representatives from all the automotive companies and after a short meeting issued a recommendation that automobile manufacturers refrain from supports racing or other events in which performance was a factor. GM and Ford were reluctant to agree, but the pressure was too much and they agreed to the terms dictated by the AMA. Although both would fiddle around with making their "police" models available to selected customers, that was as far as they were willing to push the AMA.

Which bring us back to January of 1961. President John F. Kennedy was directly responsible for the Ford Motor Company re-entering racing. Kennedy had the good graces to select the president of the Ford Motor Company, Robert S. McNamara - champion of the Ford Falcon and the Mercury Comet, as his Secretary of Defense. These were scarcely the sorts of cars that few teenaged red-blooded American boys wanted to be seen in, much less own. Enter Lee Iacocca. Iacocca had been working in the advertising department of Ford during the period Ford was supporting racing and witnessed first hand the relationship between racing, advertising, and car sales. Iacocca was now climbing the corporate ladder and had his eye on the big chair in the big office.

In the 1961 and 1962 seasons, Pontiac developed some special parts for its "police" cars as options that found their way into the hands of some folks who did not intend to use them to cruise the highways and byways looking for law-breakers. In the hands of folks like Bud Moore, Smokey Yunick, Ray Fox, Banjo Matthews, Ray Nichels, and Cotton Owens, the Pontiac teams were steam-rolling everybody and dominating the Grand National Series. It was not unnoticed that suddenly Pontiac was now No. 3 after Chevrolet and Ford. With the departure of McNamara, Iacocca decided to see about getting Ford back into the fray.

On 11 June 1962, a Monday, the Ford Motor Company announced that its President, Henry Ford II, had sent a letter to the Automobile Manufacturers Association stating that the resolution banning participation dating back to 1957 " longer had either purpose or effect." Therefore, Ford announced, "we are withdrawing from it." In a related move, Ford acquired the Autolite Company, whose spark plugs were widely used in racing - purchased for $26,000,000, Autolite had $2,000,000 budgeted to its racing operation.

Although General Motors stated its continued support of the AMA resolution, Chrysler said it considered the Ford announcement as making the resolution null and void and would follow Ford into the fray. In 1963, the Ford decision to return to racing was accompanied by the fanfare of a new advertising campaign: Total Performance. In Grand National competition, Ford came loaded for bear. It also had sent some dollars in the direction of a certain former racing driver - Carroll Shelby - who intended to market a sports car which had a British chassis (from AC, Cars) and an American engine - a Ford V-8 - jammed into it: the Shelby American Cobra. Plus, a small group of Ford engineers were trying to ready another Ford V-8 for installation into another British chassis - Lotus this time - for an assault on Indianapolis. In 1963, 1964, and 1965, Ford was in about every form of racing you could imagine.

Ford will be a factor in our story simply because of the presence of Ford in about every form of racing activity imaginable. As we move on through the years covered in this series we will also encounter Chevrolet through its involvement with the Chaparral and placing its engines in a fascinating number of machines. Chrysler will pop up and play its role, usually in the form of its Plymouth and Dodge entries on the Grand National circuit. Porsche and Ferrari will be there of course, but such familiar names in racing today as Renault, Jaguar, and Mercedes-Benz will be scarcely mentioned and with Toyota and Nissan being almost footnotes. BMW will be around, particularly in the touring car categories and Honda will be fielding not only engines but constructing its own cars.

Which brings me to Shelby American...

I make no pretense of objectivity when it comes to certain things. I like Corvettes. One of the great and fortunate deals that life dealt me was an uncle who was a Chevrolet salesman. That meant when the new Corvettes came out, I got to see them Up Close and Personal and even get the quick run around the block in one. The Lord may have decided that the Porsche or Ferrari would be perhaps better or more exotic cars, but try to get your Speedster or California Spyder fixed in Easley, South Carolina or Cuba, Alabama or Possum Rapids, Minnesota. Someone in these wonderful towns could get your Corvette up and going before you could even figure out the problem with your European exotic.

However, my love of Corvettes did not prevent me form having a crush on the Cobra, the Shelby American Cobra. The Snake. Easily one of the craziest ideas for a production - and I used the word "production" loosely in some senses although it is totally appropriate in others - car to ever to be successful. The combination of an early to mid-1950's British sports car - the AC Ace - and an American V-8 - first the 260, then the 289, and finally the 427 (...and 428) - was not exactly a marriage made in Heaven. Few who lusted after the Cobra ever drove one or had to survive an extended relationship with one. It was simply unthinkable to consider creature comfort when it just looked so cool and was such a hot machine! Which it was the former in the Winter and the latter in the Summer. Its suspension made that of an ox cart look pretty modern. It had all the aerodynamics of a shipping crate.

It had one thing in its favor though: timing.

The American auto-makers starting ramping up the performance envelope about the time the Cobra hit the streets. And Ford and Shelby made a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Ford included the Shelby in its Total Performance campaign and underwrote a healthy chunk of the Shelby American racing budget.

In 1963, the Cobra hit the track and soon was the overwhelming choice of all racing wannabes and pukka racers in the US. Shelby American campaigned a team which swept virtually every race it entered that season. At Bridgehampton in September, a Cobra won its first FIA Constructors event, a 500 kilometer race. The winning driver? Who else? Dan Gurney. In the Fall of that year, a 289 was dropped into the rear bay of a Cooper Monaco - now the King Cobra - and swept the West Coast Fall races at Riverside and Laguna Seca with former Corvette driver Dave MacDonald at the wheel.

In 1964, the Shelby American Cobra fight went International, leaving a horde of strong private entries to dominate the SCCA events. The Cobra also lost its shipping crate looks due to a provision in the FIA GT rules which allowed special or modified bodies to be used in competition as long as what was under the body was essentially unchanged. I still get a shiver every time I see a Daytona Coupe. What a wonderful looking design that Pete Brock came up with for the Cobra. From the Continental 2,000 kilometer race at Daytona to Sebring, the Targa Florio, Spa-Francorchamps, Le Mans, Reims, hill climbs, the Tour de France, and finally back to Bridgehampton, Shelby American butted heads with Ferrari for the GT Championship and came close to being victorious. At Riverside, another victory for the Cooper - Cobra combination, only with Parnelli Jones as the winner. It was also the first sports car race for Jones.

1965 saw Shelby American not only continue the Daytona Coupe cars in the quest for an FIA Championship, but the Ford GT-40 as well. At its debut with the GT-40 at Daytona, Shelby American put the Ford in the winner's circle, Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby doing the honors. Although the season of the season didn't quite match that result, the GT-40 was honed into a true racing machine. The lessons were applied to the next version of the GT-40, the Mark II, but that is a story for another day. Most importantly, though, was that the Shelby American Cobra captured the FIA GT Championship at Reims in July when Bob Bondurant and Jo Schlesser won the GT class.

In April 1964, Ford introduced the Mustang. Basically a Falcon with new sheet metal - albeit neat looking - and an extensive list of options, it was an instant success. In 1965, Shelby introduced its version of the Mustang, the Shelby American GT 350. Although available in any color as long as it was Guardsman Blue, no one cared. It was a rocket and it was - sorta - street legal. It was also to become a mainstay of SCCA production racing for several seasons.

The exploits of Shelby American in the GT championships and its successes home and abroad, captured the interest of many Americans - and many others throughout the world - not usually followers of road racing. When 1966 rolled around, Shelby American had much to do with building the audience that would follow its adventures that year.

Until next time, Mister Peabody, Sherman, Karl Oakie, and I will be frantically scrambling to write an episode on...

Don Capps© 2007
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